Labor and the New Congress: A Strategy for Winning

Labor and the New Congress: A Strategy for Winning

A labor victory in the new Congress depends on the definition of what it means to win. Labor’s broad agenda is passable in almost inverse relationship to that agenda’s capacity to strengthen the institutional and political power of trade unionism itself. This has been true for more than forty years, ever since the mid-1960s, when, during the second of the two great surges of liberal legislation in the last century (the mid-1930s is the other one) civil rights, Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education passed with relative ease, while the repeal of 14b, which allowed Southern and Western states to pass and maintain right-to-work laws had no chance in a Congress dominated by ostensible liberals.

Today’s Congress is far less liberal than that of forty-two years ago, and of course there is a right-wing Republican in the White House, but the dynamic is much the same. Those elements of labor’s agenda that are the least attached to the institutional needs of trade unionism per se have the best chance of passage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it provides some guidance for labor strategists. A minimum-wage law may well pass, as might some kind of immigration reform, and there will be no further tax cuts for the wealthy. The privatization of Social Security remains off the table, except at the right-wing think tanks.

But even Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), among the most liberal and pro-labor legislators, did not put the Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s number-one institutional priority, on their hundred-hour checklist of top legislative priorities. So the problems facing the trade union movement are enormous, especially as it seeks to advance a key piece of legislation like EFCA, which would greatly reduce employer interference during organizing campaigns by making card checks as legally and administratively legitimate as a National Labor Relations Board election in the certification of a trade union. EFCA also provides for first contract mediation and arbitration and mandates stiffer penalties for the unfair labor practices that have become routine for so many managers determined to maintain or return to a “union-free” workplace.

No “Need” for an Election?

To see what labor is up against one merely has to open the newspaper—the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times will do—and read one of the advertisements put together by the shady lobbyist Rick Berman, now executive director of the mysteriously funded Center for Union Facts.

The ad has three pictures: of Kim Jong-il, identified as the North Korean “leader”; of Fidel Castro, also identified as a “leader”; and of Bruce Raynor of UNITE-HERE, identified as an “American Union Leader.” Above their pictures is the quote “There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election” and below the pictures of these three men, t...